04 March 2010

Guys and Dolls

Guy and Dolls Imperfect, but Delightful
By Kristin Battestella

Guys and DollsI love the 1955 musical charmer Guys and Dolls. I do however also hate a good portion of it. Yes, perhaps Marlon Brando’s Sky Masterson is the biggest example of suspect casting in Hollywood history, and for most classic film laymen, that’s all Guys and Dolls is about. Thankfully, the catchy tunes, colorful hijinks, and otherwise stellar cast win out against any infamy.

Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra) and his nightly craps game have been put on the run thanks to Lieutenant Brannigan (Robert Keith). Not only will know one take a chance on hosting the game, but Nathan has to sweet talk his lady Adelaide (Vivian Blaine)-they’ve been engaged fourteen years and he’s forgotten their anniversary! One garage will take on the craps game, but only if Nathan can put down $1,000 first. Desperate and broke, Nathan makes a bet with old pal Sky Masterson (Brando) that he can’t woo Save A Soul Mission Sergeant Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons). Masterson vows to fill up Sarah’s empty mission and whisks her off to Havana for some dulce le leche. Will Brannigan catch on to game or will Detroit really have to marry Adelaide this time?

There have been times that I’ve been dying to see Guys and Dolls. Then again, I’ve had a few taped off TV copies that I’ve taped over! Fans of musicals, Frank Sinatra, Jean Simmons, and yes, even Marlon Brando can adore director Joseph Mankiewicz’ (All About Eve, Cleopatra) capper of dames, crime, and song. We don’t care if the lavish color is a little garish and dated today. Musical lovers don’t mind if not all the stars can sing. That’s part of Guys and Dolls’ charm. It’s so preposterous it’s good. Based upon the Frank Loesser’s 1950 Broadway production, Guys and Dolls looks like it was filmed on the stage. It’s coincidences of crooks and mission sergeants is a considerable leap of faith, but we can’t help but see these two opposing worlds collide in catchy songs and kitschy numbers.

If there is one reason to see Guys and Dolls, it is not the woeful miss of Marlon Brando. Rather than dwell on the bad, however, let’s spend some time with the exceptional Chairman himself. We expect Frank Sinatra (From Here to Eternity, The Manchurian Candidate, Robin and the Seven Hoods) to steal a lavish musical production, yet he still surprises us with fine songs, wise cracking wit, and onscreen style. Younger folks who even know who Sinatra is probably think of his latter day, heavier, white haired specials. Those youngsters might be surprised to see the square shouldered, thin, and active Frank here; but the Nathan Detroit style is how I still picture good Old Blue Eyes.

In addition to all the suavity, Sinatra’s tunes are up to snuff in Guys and Dolls. Adelaide’ remains stuck in my head even when I haven’t heard it in some time, and who doesn’t play ‘songs you kind of know the words to’ with the titular track? I love the humor and pacing of ‘Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat’, too. When we don’t have the big numbers, there’s also wonderful Oscar nominated scoring by Jay Blackton (Oklahoma!) keeping up the style. The backing chorus in all the numbers keeps Guys and Dolls catchy, too. The late Jean Simmons (The Robe, The Big Country, Elmer Gantry) may not have been known for her singing vocals, but her piece ‘If I Were a Bell’ is a-okay. Her distinctive speaking voice and button up style is wonderful. We believe she is religious, educated, and a little uptight- but we know Sister Sarah Brown has some spunk that needs to be let loose. It’s a shame that almost all of Simmons’ scenes are with Marlon Brando, for her charm is all over his. Though many of her roles are actually similar-the strong willed, defiant good girl- Simmons brings warmth, growth, and life to Sarah Brown.

Now, I do have to talk about the detriment of Guys and Dolls that is Marlon Brando. The Oscar winner and star of such classics as On The Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Godfather has never been one of my classic leading men favorites, and I suspect this performance is largely the reason why. From the first time we see Sky Masterson battle wits with Nathan Detroit, we know Brando is out of his element. Where Sinatra fits as the lovelorn song and dance craps man and Jean Simmons is lovely as the naive and good-hearted missionary, Brando’s Sky is beyond parody of the stereotypes already presented. His mannerisms are overdone, the put on crook accent is much too much, and by golly he can’t sing! After the lovely instrumental and Spanish renditions, he simply ruins ‘A Woman in Love’, and it’s best to think of Sinatra’s later versions of ‘Luck Be A Lady’ instead of Brando’s drivel. How did they get through filming Guys and Dolls without seeing all this? I must confess, on most viewings, I simply fast forward through all of Brando’s scenes. As much as I love to see darling Jean Simmons get the better of him, Masterson comes off as a jerk and Brando, well, a bit of an ass. Why did he even take the part?

Thankfully, there’s some delightfully cute support to strengthen Guys and Dolls. Robert Keith’s (The Wild One, My Man Godfrey) Lieutenant Brannigan is wonderfully crotchety in that Dragnet copper style, and Viviane Blaine (State Fair, the stage version of Guys and Dolls, too) almost steals all her scenes as Nathan Detroit’s long waiting fiancĂ©e Adelaide. Her shrill voice and good-natured annoying of Nathan is typical, but sweet and charming. Who can resist her kitten spectacle ‘Pet Me Poppa’? Though perhaps not as famous now as the other stars, she holds her own against Sinatra- unlike some players coughbrandocough. Detroit’s Laurel and Hardy-esque henchman Johnny Silver as Benny (The Dick Van Dyke Show) and Stubby Kaye (also reprising his stage role) as Nicely Nicely Johnson also add some subtle slapstick wit. It’s all a little stereotypical yes, but in good fun. Come on, how can you not love B.S. Pully and his milk drinking Chicago gangster Big Jule?

Guys and Dolls also has plenty of fifties color and style for the mid-century enthusiast. Some of the sets are clearly cardboard storefronts, yes, but that’s part of the stage-like atmosphere. The colorful pinstripe suits, bowties, and tilted fedoras are also delightful. While today’s metrosexual look doesn’t fit all men, a fedora and a sideways cigar harkens back to a time when all men could have some suavity. The ladies dance numbers are also a whole lot of fun, with pink satins, long gloves, mink, and pearls. For all the code restrictions and supposedly tame culture of the fifties, there’s also plenty of fishnet stockings and fanny wiggling!

Old school folks who remember when films like Guys and Dolls were the height, young aficionados of musicals, and everyone in between can still enjoy these singing and dancing gangsters. Guys and Dolls is not perfect, but the whole family can reminisce in this time capsule of fifties merriment and bad casting. Spend the evening humming with Guys and Dolls tonight.

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